Double Helix of Learning and Work

2.2.Modularization: The Era of Beginnings

Our definition of a module describes a unit of knowledge that has:

i. coherence;

ii. reduced dimensions and is easy to handle;

iii. the capacity to be part of a general system;

iv. the possibility to be classified and retrieved from the stock;

v. the ability to combine with other modules and to form a strictly consecutive string with them;

vi. the capacity to provide a content link with the other modules in the string and to provide support for independent learning;

vii. the quality of clearly indicating what other modules have to be consulted in order to assimilate it and to which other modules it may lead

viii. the quality of being selected by the user from several possible options according to an individual strategy aimed at a professional goal or at acquisition of new knowledge (research).

The modules may have different levels of development, most often (i) and (ii), but the number of these levels is not limited. Owing to the general and introductory character of the first level, it will register the highest degree of connections and will be resorted to in many variants of the personal curriculum. Interdisciplinary and applied modules follow suit. Here are some examples of modules: “Graph theory” (i), (ii), (iii), and (iv): “Graph theory in the Social Sciences”; “Graph Theory in Management”; “Graph Theory in Transport”, the latter primarily involving “Graph Theory (i)” or “Graph Theory (ii)”.

As seems to be the case for all great modern ideas, it is difficult to determine with certitude when and where the notion of modularity actually originated. Having followed with interest the constructivist pedagogical experiments of Weizsàcker (2000) in Germany who used the notion of “bricks”, Botkin, Elmandjra, and Malitza, the authors of No Limits to Learning: Report to the Club of Rome (1979) wrote: “To encourage innovative social learning, true participation must enable people to open and inspect the ‘black boxes’ of knowledge, to question their relevance and meaning, and to re-design, re-combine, and re-order them when necessary”. They also called for a reorganization of academic structures, “to combine university departments according to issues rather than only and always according to disciplines”.

The term, “module”, came to be used in non-formal education, upgrading courses, summer courses, and evening courses, in which, to a great extent, interdisciplinary issues and applications were tackled. Those who organized such courses responded to the needs of the users (industrial units, company managers, etc.) by producing ad-hoc packages of modules, each comprising several lessons. Before becoming part of the formal education system, modularity amounted to simply walking around several workplaces along the production line.

The best known and the most dynamic of distance learning universities is the Open University of the United Kingdom. It involves more than 200,000 people of whom some 160,000 are enrolled in programmes lasting three to six years leading to undergraduate or graduate university degrees. Although the need to secure acknowledgement for these degrees still compels the University to observe traditional curricula, the number of innovations is considerable: virtual tutorials, discussion groups, electronic submission of assignments, computer mediated conferences, and more.

The following is a successful sample of a module, or “unit”, as it is called at the Open University: a one-hundred-page booklet comprising two modules titled “Towards a Mechanistic Philosophy, Block 1 I, Units 4-5, Science and Belief: From Copernicus to Darwin”. It is included in the chapter on Arts/Mathematics/Science/Technology as an Inter-Faculty Second Level Course in the History of Science. The topics suggested for discussion, the quotations and bibliographical references, the required comments on excerpts from classical works, the images and illustrations, the scientific rigour and elegant style – all these are qualities that make the two modules examples of excellence.

The turning point for modules was reached when they had to face the established struc­tures of disciplinary institutions. In the current era of beginnings, one witnesses the emergence of a host of varied and uncoordinated experiments. Their goals and languages may still be insecure, but they are all brought together by their avowed intention to build curricula on modules rather than on disciplines.

In all cases, modularization began in the final stage of a given educational programme, at the point at which goals were established. It invariably went backwards, from the complex to the simple, up to the starting level of introductory or basic modules. The occupational pro­­­files pursued by the students (i.e., the answers to questions like “What would you like to be?” or “What would you like to do?”) were the most powerful magnets that caused the modular filings to settle in the map of knowledge. The concerns of those who want “knowledge for the sake of knowledge” would be met by resorting to the numerous terminals indicated as “research” in various fields. There are fewer reservations today about asserting the impor­tance of the profession and its requirements, once educational authorities have set “enhancing employability” as their top priority.

The exploration of the theoretical aspects of the modular approach has been the object of several praiseworthy works. Warwick (1987, 1988) provides a concise definition: “A module is a unit of curricular material, complete in itself, to which further units may be added for the achievement of larger tasks or more long-term goals”. He emphasizes two broad tendencies, one “which begins with the established subject matter of a course” and the other that “takes the students as its starting points”. The students would thus build programmes for their individ­ual needs by choosing modules from a larger menu. The next steps are “the complementary approach (no predetermined order, complete freedom of choice), the sequential modules (minimal amount of modular prestructuring to ensure progression towards specified goals), the concentric model (integrity of subject matter maintained through linking modules to a common core), and modular stratification (precise order to be followed). Even the design­ers can be identified by their different styles.

Traditionalists, for example, give direction to their work by breaking its contents down into cognitively meaningful sections. Progressives permit students to construct personnel programs from a large number of free-standing, independent modules or even to generate epistemological patterns of their own. The behaviorist shapes the learning process by a gradual progression through carefully sequenced units, rewarding success with a series of credits whilst the devotee of experiential learning looks to modules to rescue creativity from the tyranny of the timetable.

All these distinctions are pertinent insofar as modules, especially in the experimental phase, are created for specific, immediate, or short-term purposes. Most of them originate from the applied, vocational, and technical sector; they are extracurricular and non-formal, especially designed for small and ad-hoc tasks. However, when dealing with an all-embrac­ing pattern of formal education, all approaches are valid and non-exclusive. The approach of the main programme combines “core modules” (which are indispensable), direction (even though it may change), personal constructions (that pursue further linkages), and contents sequence constraints together with the advantages of a series of successes that are easier to obtain by taking smaller steps.

2.3. The Double Helix of Learning and Work: A Major Project

While the cumulative and gradual pace of science and knowledge is a datum, there are times when the pressure of problem-solving requires a focused effort, based on a plan and consistent guidance, spanning a long interval of time, and involving numerous research centers and considerable investments. In the area of the physics of particles and of nuclear physics, CERN (Geneva) is one such international center. In recent years, the Human Genome Project (HGP), which was developed in the 1990s, was a most spectacular and ambitious venture. It also had the structure, organization, and other characteristics of a major project.

The Human Genome Project overlaps partially, at least metaphorically, and for the second time, with the topic of this study. At first, the joining of the two complementary helixes – Learning and Work – suggested the double helix structure discovered by James Watson and Francis Crick. In the second instance, both the Human Genome Project and Learning and Work use the same key word to define their stated goal: mapping the genome by resorting to DNA markers and mapping knowledge in terms of its constituent parts. Both cases involve daring attempts to master complexity.

For quite some time, the human genome has been estimated as consisting of 50,000 to 100,000 genes based in 23 pairs of chromosomes. Two reports published in early 2001 came up with smaller figures (31,000 and 26,000 respectively), but some biologists are still con­­­vinced that further research will show that the stock of genes that it took to carry the blueprint for human beings is something between 65,000 and 75,000.

Each chromosome contains a DNA molecule, in which four bases – A, T, G, and C – form opposite couples. The order of the four bases on a strand is what determines the information content of genes, which are nothing but pieces of DNA of different lengths made up of 2,000 to 2,000,000 base pairs. When the project started, only 2 percent of the human genes had been mapped. The chromosomes were numbered, and every time the physical mapping of one of them was accomplished (no. 3 or no. 4), the media hailed the event. In genetic mapping, the idea is to determine the position or spacing of genes on the chromosome, thus obtaining clues concerning those genes associated with genetic diseases. A matrix was introduced into the physical maps. At the beginning, the complete DNA sequence was determined for a virus (170,000 basic pairs). A bacterium has 4,500,000 basic pairs. The human genome consists of 3 billion DNA base pairs, about 1,000 times larger than the bacterial genome.

One might be tempted to say that there is hardly any basis for comparison, in terms of complexity, between the genome and knowledge as expressed in the disciplines that are taught at a university. We still remember the timetables that we used to pin on the wall when we were children. The picture is no longer that simple when we open the course yearbook of a university. Let us take, for example, the Annuaire général, Vol. 2, (Faculté des études supérieures de l’Université de Montréal, 1998-1999). The 167 programmes listed there offer more than 6,000 courses (or other activities such as seminars, brainstorming sessions, tests), each indicating the credits awarded. The courses are grouped according to major disciplinary categories, from Aménagementto Art et Science, to Educational Sciences and Theology, to High Medical Studies, to Music and to Polytechnic studies. The yearbook is remarkable in its attempt to offer optional or à choix courses, to focus on practical work and laboratories, to invite lecturers from outside the University, to provide openings towards other fields.

In most universities, such a drive for innovation is at work. Buildings are enlarged or subdivided; new halls are opened, with new corridors to connect them, and wings and laboratories are added. Only the disciplinary structure remains untouched, even though it may now look like a labyrinth.

But, one might argue, will the complexity not increase when a far larger map of modules replaces the disciplinary courses? For a cautious experiment in a technological faculty, 160 modules will have to be introduced instead of 40 courses – four times as many. Since a student has to cover 100 to 200 modules in order to qualify for graduation, the choice of modules is limited by content and sequence constraints. In other faculties, the module/course ratio can exceed a factor of 10.

Moving from disciplines to modules does not amount to discarding the merits of an educational system that has functioned for centuries. Rather, it aims at introducing some radical measures in order to enhance the existing parameters and to improve results. The forty-hour week of a student, now generally divided into twenty-four classes and sixteen hours of individual study, is maintained in reversed proportion: sixteen classes and twenty-four hours of individual study. If we consider part-time or distance education, this proportion is but a minimal indicator. Given the variety of practice in higher education, let us give another example of a comparative diagram. Five courses per semester would correspond to twenty modules. In terms of reading material to be covered, a one-semester course would normally have around 200 pages. A module averages fifty pages. One course would then correspond to four modules. The figures add up nicely.

Complexity only becomes obvious when we take into account the number of distinct itineraries that may be covered in a modular system. Theoretically speaking, there are quite a few ways of choosing 100 modules out of 1,000 that are on offer. Of course, the number of choices will become smaller when we consider the conditioning that is inherent to a network of constraints: access to a module essentially implies covering some others.

The Learning and Work project introduces the second phase of modularity, following the experimental phase. It may take a decade for the educational system to introduce the modular method into this first phase, to build it up to a critical mass, and to become aware of its benefits, which multiply in relation to the growing number of applications. Thus, a large university that offers degrees in both medicine and technical sciences will receive more benefits than a smaller one. And a consortium of universities will score even higher. Also, in the experimental phase, it is crucially important to elaborate modules that are tailored to suit the entire active life scale. Such modules can be offered early on to adult users who either turn intermittently to educational cycles or cover them while working.

The Learning and Work project has as a main goal the mapping of knowledge according to the practical criteria of education distribution and use, learning, and training, for which it attempts to produce a modular sequencing operation. The project tends to cover everything that an individual can and must know in order to perform professions and roles, while also accomplishing the traditional goals of education (personal fulfillment, dignity, productive activity, social roles, conscience).

The Learning and Work map starts at the points at which the educational system transfers individuals to the sphere of work. Those, obviously, are the terminus points of job-oriented education, technical schools, and higher education. However, the map is built according to the principle that an individual can join the sphere of work at any point and then return from the helix of work to the helix of education at any time.

In an ideal university, as I conceive it, a man should be able to obtain instruction in all forms of knowledge, and discipline in the use of all methods by which knowledge is obtained. In such a University, the force of living example should fire the students with a noble ambition to emulate the learning of learned men, and to follow in the footsteps of the explorers of new fields of knowledge. And the very air he breathes should be charged with that enthusiasm for truth, that fanaticism of veracity, which is a greater possession that much learning; a nobler gift than the power of increasing knowledge; by so much greater and nobler than these, as the moral nature of men is greater than the intellectual; for veracity is the heart of morality (Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, 1933).

Still, where is the epistemological debate? It is all about knowledge, and we first need agreement on its definition. It may well be that knowledge can no longer be represented by a single tree. But it then becomes a forest, as each discipline advances according to specific laws. How can one account for the intermingling branches since the roots are distinct? The issue is deeper than such metaphorical interrogations may suggest.

It is an acknowledged fact that the ages-old philosophical questions regarding the nature and uniqueness of science, which defied classification and allowed the answers to emerge from free practice, have a certain justification. One way to produce a comprehensive mapping of science might be suggested, from time to time, by the methodological approach. Another way might be offered by logical criteria. But the need for a practical scheme is so compelling that, at the start of the Twenty-First Century, there is no time to wait for complete answers.

It is difficult to visualize the completion schedule for an enterprise such as Learning and Work in concrete terms. For one thing, global educational authorities do exist. The most active and productive one is UNESCO. Next to it, the International Labour Office (ILO) is equally busy insofar as work issues are concerned. The two of them initiated the EFA (Education for All) programme together with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). Regional organizations should be vitally interested in the project. Some also have considerable means such as the European Union and the Council of Europe.

Powerful nations support major education programmes that reach far beyond their borders. The United States, Japan, France, and the United Kingdom have dynamic and open educational systems that can yet play an important part in the launching and development of the Learning and Work programme. These countries can be assumed to be very sensitive to the Learning and Work potential, for their policy statements frequently mention unemploy­ment, the aging of the population, the knowledge economy, and competitive pressures as their major areas of concern.

The envisaged programme largely depends on meaningful international co-operation. Mixed groups of experts with related profiles and then intergroup teams will have to do most of the job. The largest groups will be those on medical, technical, and natural sciences, on economics, law, literature, arts, and other humanities. Those enclaves of experts will keep their doors open to representatives of commerce and industry, public authorities and services, human resources managers, and NGOs. The media will need to keep the public informed. Permanent centers and periodical meetings will examine developments in the area of relevant technologies. The software industry will need to encourage a more extensive use of artificial intelligence methods. The lead partner, or perhaps the owner, of the programme will possibly be a consortium of several ICT companies that are the engine of today’s exponential development of this industry. They owe everything to knowledge and training, so they are in a better position to understand their value.

One effect of, and also a condition for, the implementation of Learning and Work will be that of changing most of the existing legislation on education, work, insurance, and social services along with possible constitutional adjustments. Legal experts and legislators will be kept busy for almost a generation. They are likely to take pride in breaking new ground in the development of adequate doctrines and procedures.

The map of knowledge or the module scheme differs from that of the genome at the point where the latter strives to master a set, albeit a large one, of fixed mechanisms. Knowledge, however, is perpetually moving. Among other reasons, modules are created because they can be refreshed. The fact that they will always compete is the best way to keep them awake. Will a student choose a module suggested by his tutor if he can find a better one on the Internet? The observance of certain standards must still be provided by people of acknowl­edged competence. That is why the administration of the worldwide system of the map of knowledge will require new global institutions. At least three will be needed, not necessar­ily as central institutions but rather as peer networks: (i) to supervise quality: (ii) to ensure compatibility with the existing systems; (iii) to acknowledge credits.

The evaluation of studies and the issuance of appropriate certification are more complicat­ed tasks, but ones that are not insurmountable for the modular system. The association of the modular system with the system of credits is organic from the very beginning. Without such a link, the cumulative character of learning could not be maintained. There are several crucial points that should not be overlooked: the social value and prestige attached to a diploma or to a learned title; the “label” resulting from a certain type of education, which will eventually stick to one’s visiting card and private identity; the avenues it opens into the world of employ­ment and practical activity.

An individual accumulates credits throughout a lifelong learning system. At each moment in life, one does not rely on compact years of study at a precise university or college but rather on the credits that one may have obtained in a genetically indicated direction (engineering, medicine, education, arts, etc.). If during studies that correspond to today’s higher education one earns about 300 credits, in the following years, one might earn about 30 additional credits per year, which leads to over 1,000 by the age of 76.

What happens to diplomas? Our suggestion is that for every 200 credits earned, an individ­ual should be awarded a “star”. According to that system, a high school diploma would be equivalent to one star; college, to two stars; university, to three; the PhD, to four; further specialization and applications to five or six stars, respectively, and so on. Today’s PhD, which entails the obligation to make an original contribution to knowledge, and hands-on experience in scientific research might be assimilated to bonuses. In any case, prestige incentives or rewards should not be inferior to those awarded under the existing system. One of the goals of modularization is to keep alive and to motivate the effort of going a long way toward the acquisition of useful knowledge.

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